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Why talent is overrated

The conventional wisdom about "natural" talent is a myth. The real path to great performance is a matter of choice.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large
Last Updated: October 21, 2008: 4:44 PM ET

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Steve Ballmer: Unambitious as a junior executive, he developed an intense work ethic and vaulted to CEO of Microsoft.
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Yo-Yo Ma: The cellist, 53, has built an astounding repertoire, with more than 75 albums.
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Indra Nooyi: The PepsiCo CEO considers "hard work, perseverance, diligence" as keys to success.

(Fortune Magazine) -- It is mid-1978, and we are inside the giant Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati, looking into a cubicle shared by a pair of 22-year-old men, fresh out of college. Their assignment is to sell Duncan Hines brownie mix, but they spend a lot of their time just rewriting memos. They are clearly smart - one has just graduated from Harvard, the other from Dartmouth - but that doesn't distinguish them from a slew of other new hires at P&G.

What does distinguish them from many of the young go-getters the company takes on each year is that neither man is particularly filled with ambition. Neither has any kind of career plan. Every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded-up memos. One of them later recalls, "We were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed."

These two young men are of interest to us now for only one reason: They are Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer, who before age 50 would become CEOs of two of the world's most valuable corporations, General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) and Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500). Contrary to what any reasonable person would have expected when they were new recruits, they reached the apex of corporate achievement.

The obvious question is how. Was it talent? If so, it was a strange kind of talent that hadn't revealed itself in the first 22 years of their lives. Brains? The two were sharp but had shown no evidence of being sharper than thousands of classmates or colleagues. Was it mountains of hard work? Certainly not up to that point. And yet something carried them to the heights of the business world.

Which leads to perhaps the most puzzling question, one that applies not just to Immelt and Ballmer but also to everyone: If that certain special something turns out not to be any of the things we usually think of, then what is it?

If we're all wrong about high achievement, that's a big problem. In particular, if we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be competitive with those who possess that talent - meaning an inborn ability to do that specific thing easily and well - then we'll direct them away from that activity. We'll steer our kids away from art, tennis, economics, or Chinese because we think we've seen that they have no talent in those realms.

In business, managers often redirect people's careers based on slender evidence of what they've "got." Most insidiously, in our own lives we'll try something new and, finding that it doesn't come naturally to us, conclude that we have no talent for it, and so we never pursue it.

A number of researchers now argue that talent means nothing like what we think it means, if indeed it means anything at all. A few contend that the very existence of talent is not, as they carefully put it, supported by evidence. In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals started intensive training. Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians, and others.

Such findings do not prove that talent doesn't exist. But they do suggest an intriguing possibility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant.

The concept of specific talents is especially troublesome in business. We all tend to assume that business giants must possess some special gift for what they do, but the evidence turns out to be extremely elusive. In fact, the overwhelming impression that comes from examining the lives of business greats is just the opposite - that they didn't seem to give any early indication of what they would become.

Jack Welch, named by Fortune as the 20th century's manager of the century, showed no particular inclination toward business, even into his mid-20s. With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, approaching the real world at age 25, he still wasn't sure of his direction and interviewed for faculty jobs at Syracuse and West Virginia universities. He finally decided to accept an offer to work in a chemical development operation at General Electric.

Bill Gates, the world's richest human, is a more promising candidate for those who want to explain success through talent. He became fascinated by computers as a kid and says he wrote his first piece of software at age 13; it was a program that played ticktacktoe. The problem is that nothing in his story suggests extraordinary abilities.

As he is the first to note, legions of kids were interested in the possibilities of computers in those days. What suggested that Gates would become the king of them all? The answer is, nothing in particular.

You might suppose that in the age of genomic research, there should no longer be any question about precisely what's innate and what isn't. Since talent is by definition innate, there should be a gene (or genes) for it. The difficulty is that scientists haven't yet figured out what each of our 20,000-plus genes does.

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